We wrote this story based on responses from readers and listeners like you. From Princeton to Cape May, what do you wonder about South Jersey, its people and its culture that you want WHYY to investigate? Let us know here.
The Borough of Lawnside, in Camden County, has a rich African American history as a major location for men and women escaping to freedom. Some long-time residents, however, are concerned that history is being set aside for development.
Several of them held a protest on a recent, cold Saturday along Warwick Avenue. It’s a busy road that runs next to Lawnside Borough Hall, connecting White Horse Pike and I-295.
The protest was led by 96-year-old Ida Conaway, a resident since 1959 who is known by some as “Mother Lawnside.” She said there are plans to put up two more warehouses behind her house.
“There are two already on Oak Avenue,” she said. “They’re putting up two more in an industrial park back there, right in back of my house.”
She adds she fought development in the same area 45 years ago, when they wanted to put in a truck stop. “So we just blocked it,” she recalled.
Joining her is Michelle Vickers, another long-time resident who said her late mother lived “right where they want to put those doggone warehouses.”
“We’re getting warehouses to do what?” she asked.
The warehouses are part of the Oak Avenue Redevelopment Plan being built by Vineland Construction Company.
The mixed-use development spans 135 acres that will include regional operations for New Jersey American Water and new national headquarters for boiler manufacturer IBC. There is also a new luxury apartment complex, Station Place. The footprint of the development is close to the Woodcrest PATCO station.
The company did not return requests for an interview. On its website, it said that the development, “fulfills a vision of the late Bernard Brown, owner of Vineland Construction Co. to bring jobs and economic growth to Lawnside and the greater South Jersey region.”
Lawnside Mayor Mary Ann Wardlow also did not respond to requests for comment. But when she accepted the 2019 Camden County Freedom Medal, she reflected on the borough’s need to preserve its rich history while making sure it has a place in the future.
“Lawnside has such history, and I’m trying to push more for that,” she said. “But we also have to progress, and that’s something that I’m trying to fulfill.”
It’s the history that many long-time residents feel is being paved over for that progress.
‘A place of freedom to an oppressed people’
Lawnside was home to free Black people as early as the 1700s, according to Lawnside Historical Society president Linda Shockley. She adds the location and its proximity to Quakers made the area an ideal place for enslaved Black people to escape to freedom.
“There was a book called ‘A True Story of Lawnside’ by Charles Smiley, where he makes reference to the wooded areas and in some of the freedom stories of our families they talk about people escaping here,” she said.
The borough, first known as Free Haven and later Snow Hill, was a stop on the underground railroad. A man named Peter Mott played a vital role in helping slaves escape. He did so from his home and the Mt. Pisgah AME Church, where he served as Sunday School Superintendent.
“The oral tradition is that he took enslaved people in his wagon to the Quakers, who were staunch abolitionists in Haddonfield and Moorestown,” Shockley added.
Mott’s house, now owned by the historical society, still stands as an Underground Railroad museum. The Borough of Lawnside was incorporated in 1926, the only antebellum Black community in New Jersey.
New Jersey is experiencing high demand for warehouses.
Real estate firm Newmark says the vacancy rate dropped below three percent late last year for warehouse space in Central and North Jersey. While construction projects for new warehouses total into the millions of square feet according to various reports.
But some say Lawnside was not created to be a major commercial hub.
“The town spirit is about housing and the place to raise your families, the churches, your schools, the things like that,” said Ervin Mears, who is running for mayor. “It was never meant to be commercialized as it is today.”
Over at Station Place, some are aware of Lawnside’s history while holding concerns about development.
“It’s got a lot of history,” said Chris Kosofky, who moved in from Cherry Hill. He’s preparing to retire from his job as a Haddonfield police officer, where he works with police officers from the borough at times.
“A great bunch of guys,” he said of his Lawnside colleagues.
Kosofky said he understood why the borough is interested in the development to boost the tax base, he remains concerned about the amount of construction taking place.
“I think it’s becoming too congested,” he said. “It’s just every little square patch of green grass is being developed into something.”
New residents to the area are not aware of Lawnside’s history. Michael Lee, who moved in from Freehold, believes development is helpful to the borough.
“It’s like close to PATCO, it’s relatively more affordable than some other places in the area,” Lee said. “I think it’s good if you want to introduce more people to the community.”
“That needs to be something that our economic development coordinators are talking with and impressing on these companies that come here,” she said. “What are you contributing for the community?”
Get daily updates from WHYY News!